Similar and Different: Good and Evil

The last post in this series had highlighted the emergence of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan and religious nationalism in India. I took the position that there was near consensus on the cause of the phenomenon in Pakistan while it was much more difficult to provide a convincing explanation in the case of India. The plan was to make an attempt at an explanation in this post.

Comments from Vinod have altered the plan and forced a step back. There is a legacy of communal prejudice that needs an explanation in its own right before we can move on to more recent phenomena. So this post will engage with the question posed by Vinod: Where does this prejudice come from?

My position on this issue is that human beings who are essentially good often act in ways that are not good. We need to explain how such an eventuality can occur. It so happens that this is the theme of a book (The Lucifer Effect) by Philip Zimbardo, considered amongst the leading social psychologists of our time. The book is based on the author’s attempts to provide an explanation for what happened at Abu Gharaib and I will borrow his words to make my point more effectively than I could myself.

Zimbardo titles the book The Lucifer Effect (TLE) to refer to the cosmic transformation of God’s favorite angel, Lucifer, into Satan. This

sets the context for my investigations into lesser human transformations of good, ordinary people, not angels, into perpetrators of evil in response to the corrosive influence of powerful situational forces. Those forces that exist in many common behavioral contexts are more likely to distort our usual good nature by pushing us toward engaging in deviant, destructive, or evil behavior when settings are new and unfamiliar. When embedded in them, our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting no longer function to sustain the moral compass that has guided us reliably in the past.

I challenge the traditional focus on the individual’s inner nature, dispositions, personality traits, and character as the primary and often the sole target in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can be readily seduced into engaging in what would normally qualify as ego-alien deeds, as antisocial, as destructive of others. That seduction or initiation into evil can be understood by recognizing that most actors are not solitary figures improvising soliloquies on the empty stage of life. Rather, they are often in an ensemble of different players, on a stage with various props and changing costumes, scripts, and stage directions from producers and directors. Together, they compromise situational features we must come to appreciate as influencing how behavior can be dramatically modified. By recognizing the impact of any given play, we implicate systemic features into our analysis. Thus TLE is a call for a three-part analysis of human action by trying to understand what individual actors bring into any setting, what situational forces bring out of those actors, and how system forces create and maintain situations.

Zimbardo rejects the approach that looks for causes of evil in the nature of human beings. Instead he focuses our attention on the system that gives rise to situations that lead good people to act in evil ways.

This perspective is in keeping with the argument that we have been advancing on this blog. In a number of earlier posts we have identified the systemic cause of tensions in the subcontinent as the introduction by the British of electoral politics based on separate electorates. This eventually gave rise to the situation of the Partition, which, in turn, shaped the actions of individuals spurred on by many producers and directors.

In the Preface to the book Zimbardo states that it was painful for him to undertake this journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ but he did so because he believed that the very same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination and evil in some of us can inspire the heroic imagination in others.

My new mission is promoting this conception of teaching people, especially our children, to think of themselves as “heroes-in-waiting,” ready to take a heroic action in a particular situation that may occur only once in their lifetime.

These are inspiring words and they give us hope that we can build a better future in South Asia by understanding what has led us astray in the past.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 15:37h, 07 April Reply

    “In a number of earlier posts we have identified the systemic cause of tensions in the subcontinent as the introduction by the British of electoral politics based on separate electorates.”

    Have you thought that perhaps the tension was just an expression of underlying psychological schisms that had always existed. The Mughal Empire was the rule of a minority over a majority. The similar Manchu Empire in China was overthrown in the early 20th century, and the Manchus were nearly exterminated. There is also not much evidence to prove that the Mughal Empire was a very prosperous, well run set up, which would have further fueled resentment.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:44h, 16 April Reply

    Vikram, I have put off answering this comment because it involves what I think is an important point that is crucial for understanding the histories of South Asia. Let me give it a try and now and hopefully we can continue the discussion.

    At one level, the concept of a majority and minority is an obvious and universal one because all it involves is a count of numbers. When we count we can always tell whether blue or black eyes are more prevalent in a given group of subjects.

    But this becomes more tricky when we realize that we do not or can not count all the time. Let me quote from Sunil Khilnani’s book, The Idea of India, again (p. 162): “The terminolgy of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ was itself an inescapable imposition of the political accountancy of the Raj.” This is also the point that Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik makes very convincingly in her book from which I have qouted often. There was no conception of monolithic communal identities in India before the census was introduced by the British.

    This problem arises when we look back at a period which was innocent of a collective consciousness of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ through a modern lens where this is the dominant consciousness of the day.

    We have to try and situate ourselves in the earlier time to understand what it must have been like. Of course, within each village people would have known how many members there were of different jatis and who had more power but this did not necessarily translate into conflict. Nor did the groups that felt oppressed try and contact their fellow members in other provinces of India to form a united front against oppression.

    But once all-India based counting was introduced and later became the means to allocate power based on separate electorates or caste quotas a whole new dynamic was unleashed. We can thus explain the timing of the hardening of communal and inter-caste feelings as the British withdrawal approached and a redivision of the pie based on ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ status loomed on the horizon.

    Your last point is less important is this discussion. First of all what would people have compared the Mughal Empire to in terms of prosperity and good governance? And, second, if you are assuming that Hindus resented the Empire more than Muslims because the Mughals were Muslims, we would again run into the same problem of the consciousness of collective identities at that time.

    Moreover, there were many Hindus associated with the Mughal Empire in influential positions and there is little evidence that the ordinary Muslim in a given village was treated any better than the ordinary Hindu or Sikh.

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